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House bill would consider gym dues a medical tax deduction

It's May, the month of flowers fed by April showers, the start of the summer vacation season and National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.

I started off this May Day at a yoga sculpt class, which is a combination of yoga poses with hand weights. I admit that I'm still working with just five-pound weights, but hey, it's something.

Regular exercise has been part of my routine for a few years now. Mostly it's yoga, but that's harder than non-yogis might think. Plus, I love the mental focus and balance (mental and physical) the practice brings.

Some of my other classes are more aerobic. And the hubby and I also try to take neighborhood walks several times a week.

This physical exertion is relatively new to me. As a kid, I remember my mom working out in our living room to Jack LaLanne's television show. My younger brother and I joined in as preschoolers are wont to do. He quickly mastered the headstand. I nailed those jumping jacks!

Exercise obstacles: But as I got older, other less active interests filled my time. I also was sort of a sickly child, which meant a lot of doctor's excuses from gym class at school.

So being sedentary, at school and then later at work, became a way of life.

It takes a lot to break out of that cycle and climb off the couch. When physical fitness isn't part of your routine early in life, it seems to be harder to pick up the practice later. That's not a hard and fast rule, but it does seem to hold true more often than not.

So anything that helps people of all ages get moving is good. That includes symbolic things like designating a month as one in which you focus on your health, as well as health insurance coverage of preventative medicine and health-improvement activities such as exercise classes.

Workplace health care coverage of exercise is a growing trend, but it's far from universal.

Tax benefits for being healthy: One U.S. House member, however, wants Uncle Sam to offer some exercise encouragement in the form a tax break.

Rep. Charles Boustany, the Republican representative of Louisiana's third district and a physician, has introduced H.R. 1218, the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act.

The bill would add qualified sports and fitness expenses to the Internal Revenue Code section (that's 213(d)(1) if you're looking) that defines medical care. These definitions generally are used to determine whether an expense can be claimed as a medical or dental itemized deduction or to be reimbursed from a medical flexible spending account.

Boustany's bill would add to that part of the tax code and allow for a medical care tax deduction of up to $1,000 ($2,000 for head of household or married joint filers) for such things as the cost of fitness facility memberships, physical exercise programs, and exercise equipment.

This being the tax code, however, there are, of course, limitations in addition to the deduction dollar caps. 

No country club or clothing write-offs: If your fitness membership was for access to exercise equipment at the country club to which you belong, that fee wouldn't count.

Boustany's bill says for its tax deduction purposes, a fitness facility cannot be a private club whose main purposes are "golf, hunting, sailing, or riding facilities" and where the health component is simply incidental to the club's overall function.

And while you can jam as many treadmills and stair climbers and ellipticals (worth up to the $1,000/$2,000 max) as possible into your own private gym in your garage or spare room, the bill limits the deduction amount on accessories.

Other sports equipment, such as instructional books or videos, must be used exclusively for fitness training and the deduction amount would be limited to $250 of the total deduction amount.

And apparel is specifically excluded. So don't go filling your closet with dozens of really cute sweat suits, yoga pants and sneakers in the hopes of writing off the outfits.

Tax break to fight obesity: Basically, says Boustany, the bill (which so far has 19 bipartisan cosponsors) is designed to provide a tax break for activities that promote health and prevent disease, particularly those related to being overweight and obese, and which encourage healthier lifestyles.

He hopes that if people are rewarded financially for getting into shape, it will reduce some of the distressing health data he lists in the bill. The alarming news about Americans' lack of physical fitness includes:

  • Almost 20 percent of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or suffer from obesity;
  • Eight of the nine most expensive illnesses in the United States are more common among overweight and obese individuals;
  • The increase in the number of overweight and obese Americans between 1987 and 2001 resulted in a 27 percent increase in per capita health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and
  • The United States ranks last in the world in reducing the number of preventable deaths resulting from obesity-related chronic illnesses

Boustany also cites the dollar costs of being unhealthy.

He points to a World Health Organization study that determined that a $1 investment in physical activity (in time and equipment) offers a savings of $3.20 on the United States' medical expenses.

It takes pay to stay healthy: However, we apparently aren't motivated to get healthy on our own. Given a financial reward, well that's a different story.

Boustany says research indicates that 40 percent of Americans would become more physically active if offered a monetary incentive.

Hence, his proposed tax break for breaking a sweat.

The bill is a good idea, but it's not likely to pass, at least not in the near future. But until we do get a few tax dollars for getting in shape, maybe more of us will be encouraged to work out during May's special exercise recognition month and beyond.

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